BROOKINGS – South Dakota State University took time April 5 to recognize the “invisible” contingent of America’s public health workforce.

Out of the trillions of dollars dedicated each year to health in the United States, only about 3% have been spent historically on public health and prevention, according to Charles Chima, public health director for the City of Sioux Falls and keynote speaker at a National Public Health Week celebration organized by the Master of Public Health program at SDSU.

Public health is easy to overlook because it doesn’t involve high-tech medical procedures or curing a deadly disease, Chima said.

Rather, it involves population-based activities, often in such practical ways as preventing food poisoning by inspecting restaurants, preventing cavities through school visits by dental hygienists to reach needy children, and preventing the spread of mosquito-borne diseases through vector control programs.

It also extends to healthy lifestyle education, well-child screenings and mental health programs.

Growing need for public health workers

But all of it requires money and people, Chima said. He cited a 2017 survey which stated 47% of US public health workers plan to leave the workforce or retire within the next five years. The number of US public health workers also decreased by about 16% between 2008 and 2019, according to information Chima presented.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has further accelerated this,” he said.

Chima also cited a survey that found that about 2,200 epidemiologists are needed at state and territorial health departments nationwide – a 53% increase from the current level.

But he told the audience, which was primarily pharmacy students, that the public health picture isn’t one of gloom.

In fact, he has found most public health workers enjoy their jobs because they “feel a calling to keep their community and their state healthy. They have a true, natural joy for doing the work they’re doing. They may not be able, like a doctor, to say I saved this person’s life, but they know that thousands of lives each day are being saved by the work they do, ”Chima said.

COVID helps health funding

Also, increased government allocations that came in response to COVID-19 has allowed public health departments to add positions within the last years.

Chima urged people to advocate for continued strong funding for public health so those funds don’t disappear after COVID-19 moves into the background.

He noted there is a bill in Congress that would create a loan repayment program for public health workers just as now is available for direct-care providers who work in underserved areas. This is an overdue measure, said Chima, who was trained as a primary care physician in his native Nigeria.

Roots of SDSU’s public health degree

The Master of Public Health program at SDSU, an online effort conducted in cooperation with the University of South Dakota, graduates 15 students per year.

In introductory remarks, Dennis Hedge, provost and vice president for academic affairs, recalled that discussion of a public health program at SDSU began 10 years ago. In the 2011-12 school year, Hedge, then dean of the College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Professions, began discussions with Mike Lawler, dean of health programs at USD.

“As a land-grant institution, it’s important to create and transfer knowledge to enhance the human condition and that’s really what public health is all about. Then, as it is today, many are in underserved communities. We need to make sure communities are taken care of no matter where they are located, whether they’re in poverty areas, whether they’re in rural areas, ”Hedge said.

The program was approved by the South Dakota Board of Regents in summer 2014 and classes started in January 2015.

Aaron Hunt coordinates the Master of Public Health program, which offers a 15-credit certificate and a 42-credit master’s degree, all online. With an enrollment of 74, it is the only program of its kind in the state and is designed to address the public health needs of rural and underserved communities.

Career preparation info discussed

Prior to Chima’s talk, students heard from a panel of public health practitioners discussing preparation for careers in public health.

Panelists were Nastocia Bafford, a fellow with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who is stationed at USD and focuses on COVID-19 in tribal areas; Dodi Haug, a prevention specialist with the Northeast Prevention Resource Center in Watertown; and Dustin Ortbahn, deputy epidemiologist with South Dakota Department of Health in Pierre.

Joining by Zoom was Lisa Campbell, director of the post-master’s Doctor of Nursing Practice program at Texas Tech University.

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